4 January 2016

Ethiopia: Diplomatic Reluctance Over Renaissance Dam Risks Historic Gains

Photo: http://africanarguments.org
Artist's impression of the Renaissance Dam, under construction on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.
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History has it that the Nile River, considered the longest river system in the world, has been the major cause of animosity between Ethiopia and Egypt. Sudan, another major regional player on the issue, has often taken sides with Egypt due largely to colonial agreements limiting the ownership of the waters of the river to the two countries. Centuries have passed with the river serving as a cause of friction, distrust, war of words, intervention and instability.

That long history of hostility is fading fast under the reign of the Revolutionary Democrats. Not only are the developmentalists constructing the largest dam in Africa, with a total power generation capacity of 6,000Mw, but their long overdue dismantling of diplomatic walls has created a functional regime of trust and engagement with rivals Egypt and Sudan. Huge diplomatic capital has been spent to bring about the level of mutual understanding that now exists between the countries.

Of course, the state of affairs between the nations has not changed completely. Egypt and Sudan are not yet signatory to the Comprehensive Framework Agreement (CFA), a binding water utilization agreement signed by six of the 11 riparian countries. Nonetheless, a tripartite understanding of bringing consensus on the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been reached amongst the three countries. And Sudan's siding with Ethiopia on most of the negotiations made under the umbrella of the tripartite agreement, is historic.

Ever since the three-way platform was created, many sticking points have been resolved. From creating a general sense of trust amongst the countries to deciding on key technicalities, such as the conduct of social and environmental assessments, multiple achievements have been obtained at the negotiation table. By and large, the platform has proved to be a right arrangement.

This, however, does not mean that the negotiations have been flawless. What instead signifies the three-way platform is the unpredictability of the parties. This has been glaringly visible over the past couple of months.

Ethiopian negotiators have been unusually reluctant to take part in the platform. Three scheduled meetings of the negotiators have been cancelled for various reasons. On one of the occasions, the Ethiopian party asked for postponement due to busy official schedules.

The tripartite table is witnessing fluctuating trust levels. There seems to be a deceleration in the pace of diplomatic efforts amongst the countries. Aside from the cancelled and postponed meetings, not to mention the rather unsatisfying reasons mentioned, the confusing signals that Egyptian authorities send out through mainstream and new forms of media confirms this. A dam filling consensus, coming before resolving issues of social and environmental impact, also shows that the platform is, at least for the time being, avoiding tougher issues.

Partly, this relates to the geopolitics of the time. Ever since 2011, Egypt was largely dealing with an internal crisis instigated by a popular revolution that ousted the established authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak. It was only in 2014 that the nation managed to get a relatively stable government in the election of a former military general, Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi, to the throne. Two years in power, the administration of President el-Sisi is still struggling to bring the economy back to its path of growth and stability.

In view of the negotiations over the GERD, these growing sensitivities of the Egyptian government have manifested in the form of nervousness, inadequate commitment to talk on sticking points and insufficient openness to reach to compromise.

In contrast, Sudan, which recently saw the reaffirmation of Omar Al-Bashir, extending his 26-year presidency, remained consistent in its stance on the negotiations. Its officials have been clear on the benefits their country is going to get out of the construction of the GERD and the role the tripartite platform plays in resolving differences.

Besides remaining suspicious of the alignment of its archrival Eritrea with Egypt and Qatar, Ethiopia has also been busy arranging its own house. Immediately after conducting a national election, which extended the reign of the ruling EPRDF, the nation resorted to debating the next five-year development plan - the Second Growth & Transformation Plan (GTP II). A widespread drought, affecting over 10 million people, and political volatility in some regions of the nation, such as Oromia, have made the ruling elite all the more busy. Hence, their relative reluctance to display stronger diplomatic commitment in the GERD negotiations.

It is well-understood that the issue of GERD is not a one country issue. Although the Dam is an affirmation to the rights of Ethiopia to use the waters of the Nile, its implications go far beyond. That is why a multinational platform for negotiation and consensus is mandatory. Success under such a platform, however, is largely defined by the diplomatic commitment displayed by the negotiating parties.

Over the past months, there have been considerable fluctuations in Ethiopia's commitment. Left unattended, these fluctuations could risk the huge diplomatic gains obtained over the years. The case has been similar with Egypt, but Ethiopia's was glaringly visible as the nation has been the champion in the process. It is like watching an Olympic medalist sliding down the ranks.

Regardless of its preoccupation, including settling volatility in some regions, the government ought to retake the leadership role at the tripartite table. It should continue to be a force pushing for consensus on key sticking issues. As the pattern has been, even under the watchful eyes of the late Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia should be that Good Samaritan extending its hands of goodwill for diplomatic understanding.

As in any other inter-country negotiations, the pace, magnitude and direction of diplomacy matter to obtaining the intended results over the GERD. With Ethiopia's wavering diplomatic efforts, many were even worried that the negotiations might take return to square one.

Thanks to the meeting last week, the worst fear was avoided. Yet, diplomatic inconsistency seems to be prevalent. Ethiopian authorities, therefore, need to streamline consistency in their negotiation efforts. They need to reassume their leadership position in the tripartite table.

What should come to the mind of Ethiopian negotiators is that the point at which the countries find themselves now is historic, and no sensitivity should be allowed to risk this understanding.

But the job is not that of Ethiopia's only. Egypt and Sudan ought to also care about the pace of the process. Avoiding the points of conflict and living for populism will serve no purpose. Much as the unresolved issues should not be allowed to hijack the overall process, they ought to be addressed with some nerve, courage and determination.

After all, there is no better alternative than consistent diplomacy to resolve the issues around the GERD and the equitable use of the Nile. Even the default state, the centuries-old regime of animosity, is no more an alternative as times have changed. This therefore means that the countries have to utilize the diplomatic space as optimally as possible.

There is no country better positioned to see the issues through to resolution than Ethiopia. That is why Ethiopian policy makers need to keep the diplomatic wheel over the GERD rotating at a consistent pace, with sufficient openness and along the lines of mutual trust.

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